Community Networks Stories: When internet access goes beyond service provision to become a community-managed common good

As part of the “Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives” project, 12 community network organisations (four in Africa, four in Asia and four in Latin America) were selected and granted funding towards activities that create and foster a peer learning community. Over the coming weeks we will be sharing stories from the members of this peer community about local impacts of the work they carried out with the help of this funding. Today, we are featuring a story that was shared with us by Instituto Bem Estar Brasil (IBEBrasil).

Since IBEBrasil started to work in the mission of internet access as a human right in 2008, it was clear that inequality in internet access causes a huge gap in terms of well-being and development in excluded areas like North Fluminense, in Rio de Janeiro. Little things for people who have access turn into big problems for communities that don’t. For example, the simple act of paying a bill, which can be quickly and easily done online when you are connected, involved lengthy travel time to a bank to make the payment in person. For kids and young people, using the internet for doing homework or research or taking part in e-learning programmes also meant a difficult journey when there was no internet access where they lived.

Then, when the internet arrived not only as a service in the community, but also as a model that makes it possible for the community to implement self-management of a local common good, the transformation was visible. In 2008, the big issue was the regulatory environment and the costs of the link and infrastructure. In 2013, through the research studies that we did in partnership with universities, we saw that another big issue was the self-management of the community internet service provider and how the community organises itself around the local access network as a common good. The Connecting the Unconnected project helped push us to work more deeply on these questions, making it possible to improve the process in the community of Marrecas and develop a strategic plan not only for the expansion of their own community network but also to coordinate connections with the surrounding communities. In 2020 we will continue the work of expansion to achieve the economic stability of the community networks, working with them to further strengthen the membership process.

It’s sometimes difficult to see changes in the short term, but it is undeniable that internet access as a common good made a big difference in the communities, even with all the difficulties of the democratic, political, technical and economic processes involved. The awareness around having their own infrastructure and feeling that they have the control of it is a big advance. In 2020, with the support of IBEBrasil, the local self-management councils of the community networks will implement a best practice that we learned about through our Connecting the Connected peer community partner in Argentina: holding periodic meetings with new users to offer a workshop that creates understanding about the role of the community network, how it works, and the relationships between the different parties involved. This is a good experience that we learned about thanks to the travel exchanges between the peers made possible by the project, and we will help to apply it in our local community networks and see what happens.

When IBEBrasil began to work with community networks, we started to develop a methodology through the experience gained with each network created, which we called the community providers methodology. Then we created the institutional programme Digital Communities in partnership with the universities. All the work that we have done and the information that we have collected throughout the years has been used, changed, mixed, co-created, applied and replicated in our daily life. We believe that all of it can be replicated and readapted by other community networks, as long as there is respect and sensitivity for the way of life in the communities involved, because we are not changing anything, they are.

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